Steve Reich at 80 – Barbican review


Steve Reich at 80

Pendulum Music (1968)

Nagoya Guitars (1996)

Electric Counterpoint (1987)

Different Trains (1988)

Pulse (2015) [Barbican co-commission: European premiere]

Three Tales (2002)

Dither (electric guitars), Thomas Gould and Miranda Dale (violins), Clare Finnimore (viola), Caroline Dearnley (cello), Beryl Korot (video); Electronic Music Studios of the GSMD; Synergy Vocals; Britten Sinfonia / Clark Rundell

Barbican Hall, London

Saturday 5th November [6.30pm]

The Barbican venues were dominated this weekend by Steve Reich, whose 80th birthday fell on October 3rd and whose music is the most vital manifestation of the minimalist aesthetic, as well as a pervasive influence on later generations of essentially non-minimalist composers.

The Saturday evening concert itself offered a fair overview of Reich’s evolution across three decades. Pendulum Music may be more an art installation than musical composition, but the presence of 16 people each setting a microphone in motion, such that the resulting feedback is projected by accompanying speakers, makes for a music-theatrical experience of no mean efficacy. A thought persists whether Reich might have been encouraged to do for pendulums what Ligeti had done for metronomes with his Poème symphonique just six years previously?

Utterly consistent in his compositional techniques, Reich has never written intrinsically bad pieces though he has written a few boring ones. There could be no doubting the effectiveness with which David Tanenbaum adapted 1994’s Nagoya Marimbas into Nagoya Guitars, even though the resulting canonic interplay barely sustained interest over its six minutes. Nor did the presence of live guitarists make Electric Counterpoint a riveting experience – not helped by amplification that blurred the interplay of the 11 leads and muddied that of the two basses.

This programme was to have featured Reich’s WTC 9/11 (by some way the most meaningful response to those atrocities in New York), but few would have begrudged revival of Different Trains. Here a live string quartet and three pre-recorded equivalents are overlaid with speech patterns as evoke their literal and metaphorical ‘journeys’ to spellbinding effect, above all in the climactic central Europe – during the war section where observations of three Holocaust survivors become integrated into a soundscape as affecting as any Reich has (and could ever have) achieved. Framed by engaging recollections of the composer’s peripatetic childhood in America – before the war, and a more reflective sequence focussing on observations After the war, it is likely to remain Reich’s masterpiece and Minimalism’s defining raîson d’être.

After which, Pulse was a gentle come-down. This latest Reich work deploys its ensemble of woodwind, strings and pianos via interweaving canons in music that pivots between repose and torpor – with more than a hint of American ‘ruralism’ as regard its harmony and texture.

Back to more immediate concerns with Three Tales – the second of Reich’s collaborations with the video artist Beryl Korot, and his closest engagement (to date) with the premises of contemporary music-theatre. There are three parts, and these are strongly differentiated as to era, concept and underlying form. Thus Hindenburg unfolds as a suite where reportage of the 1937 zeppelin disaster frames imagery of its construction and (over-reaching) ambition, while Bikini is akin to an oblique sonata-design in which footage from the air, on the atoll and on the ships is imbued with expressive intensification and ominous Biblical undertones.

These latter are to the fore in Dolly, where images of the first cloned mammal become the catalyst for six sections akin – in musical terms – to developing variation in the way over a dozen talking heads, with their ‘outlooks’ on the future, are juxtaposed in a sequence whose implosive final dialogue of Kismet (a socially intelligent humanoid robot) with its creator parallels changes from external to internal technological developments over the last century.

Hugely ambitious (despite its barely hour-long duration) and far more compellingly presented than on its previous Barbican outing over a decade ago, Three Tales might still promise more than it delivers, but its attempt to grapple with contemporary issues remains absorbing and it is to be hoped that Reich and Korot will take on one more collaborative challenge. Tonight’s realization overcame technical hitches to convey its emotional charge in full measure, Clark Rundell drawing a precisely coordinated response from Synergy Vocals and Britten Sinfonia.

Reich and Korot were on hand for a post-performance discussion where the former was asked as to future-plans. His immediate task is for a piece on the principals of the ‘concerto grosso’, which will doubtless emerge revivified at the hands of this perennially resourceful composer.

Richard Whitehouse

Café Budapest Contemporary Art Festival – Steve Reich at 80


Jon Jacob attends the Steve Reich 80 concert at the Cafe Budapest Festival on Sunday, 16 October 2016.

Steve Reich’s music occupies a special place in the hearts of its devotees. Concerts attract earnest (in some cases obsessive) crowds, but the spirit of inclusivity borne out of the audience’s high expectations and infectious enthusiasm in undeniable.

To mark Reich’s 80th, the Amadinda Percussion Ensemble joined forces with the Kelemen Quartet and the UMZE Chamber Ensemble to perform a selection of music by the composer.

Mallet Quartet received its world premiere in Budapest in 2009, the culmination of a 25-year collaboration between the Amadinda Ensemble and Reich himself. It’s a thought-provoking work, taking us on a journey from textbook, upbeat, joyous Reich, through pensive reflection, onto a celebratory conclusion tinged with a hint of unease. What joy there is at the beginning of the work is tempered by an unshakable tension at the end.

The most musically satisfying of the composer’s larger ensemble works, City Life also happened to turn out to be the performance highlight of the evening.

The Kelemen Quartet accompanied by UMZE Chamber Ensemble played with heart and grit in equal measure, taking us through a range of aural cityscapes, some grim, others terrifying. In the fifth movement – Heartbeats – the distinction between live music and recorded ambience was indecipherable creating what at times appeared like a nightmare vision of urban life.

In some respects hearing Reich’s music in the opulent surroundings of the Lizst Academy in Budapest seemed incongruent with the images he conjures up in his writing. The acoustic, whilst generous, sometimes muddied the rich lines from the percussion instruments. The Quartet – a work for two vibes and two pianos for example, highlighted the acoustic challenge which in turn drew attention to the demands placed on the Ensemble placing chords and ensuring unison lines were uniformly played.

Radio Rewrite – a collaboration between Reich and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood – is different in character and, in some ways, musically less satisfying. The phrases Reich uses are longer meaning the driving rhythms we come to expect from his creation are lost in favour of complex seemingly ever-changing time changes. There was as a result a perceptible lack of punch to proceedings made the work feel a little long.

Jon Jacob writes about classical music at the Thoroughly Good site. He’s ThoroughlyGood on Twitter.

The Borrowers – The Orb: Little Fluffy Clouds


What tune does it use?

The third section of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint.

Ask any electronic musician worth their salt who their greatest influences are and the chances are it won’t be long before they come round to mentioning Steve Reich – which our interview with John Tejada has already confirmed!

Reich’s talent for taking pop-friendly melodies and looping them almost to breaking point (a technique often labelled as minimalism) has been one of the single biggest influences on electronic music up to this point, especially in techno, which often uses similar principles of repetition and expansion.

How does it work?

The Orb use a direct sample of the first recording of Reich’s Electronic Counterpoint, a piece written for guitarist Pat Metheny in 1987. He recorded it by setting down seven channels of guitar loops and two of bass guitar, before playing along as a tenth ‘person’. Yet The Orb place this music in context with a beautiful dub bass line and a host of ambient sound effects, most notably a clip of an interview with Rickie Lee Jones. The section of music they lift from Reich comes from the third section of Electric Counterpoint:

The Orb sample it directly here, as the beginning of their ‘chorus’:

and again nearly a minute later:

Here is the whole of the third section from Reich and Metheny, sat in the same key of A major:


What else is new?

Little Fluffy Clouds came to symbolize a lot of what was right about the so-called ‘ambient house’ style of the early 1990s, which acted as a springboard for Aphex Twin and a number of today’s leading electronic producers. Reich himself got involved later on, commissioning a remix album from such electronic luminaries as Coldcut, DJ Spooky and Four Tet. Here’s a remix of a section of Reich’s masterpiece Drumming by Mantronik:

The cross-over between Reich and techno goes back a long way too – and one intriguing spot is that Japanese producer Ken Ishii – now a widely respected techno artist – played cello on the first recording of Music for 18 Musicians, made for ECM in 1978. Now if you haven’t heard that particular piece, I suggest you stop what you’re doing right now and watch this!

Or you can go some way to sharing one of the great live experiences in music in this live performance:

Likewise if this is your first encounter with the music of The Orb, I should direct you towards their Top of the Pops performance of the wonderful, peerless Blue Room, heard in edit form below. Definitely the first band to play chess on the program!

John Tejada


John Tejada is a well established and highly respected techno musician – but his roots lie in an upbringing full of classical music. Arcana called him on a break from work in his California studio, where he wrote his tenth album Signs Under Test, released on Kompakt this month.

He spoke about the benefits of a musically open family, how that led him to hone his own approach to music, and why he loves the music of Steve Reich. But first, after a quick listen…

Can you remember your first encounter with classical music?

My first memories were from my parents, with my mother being an opera singer and my father a clarinettist and conductor. I would often get dragged around to gigs! One of my first memories was seeing them practice, and that made it very real. I think that probably that programmed me into the routine of how you get up, have breakfast and then practice, and that has stuck with me right through to this day. It was a big influence in what I do now.

There are often moments in your music where you are subtly very inventive, using unusual rhythms and less conventional harmonic patterns. Does that stem from your upbringing do you think?

I suppose it does, but I couldn’t properly explain it. It’s one of the different ways I got to where I am now. My focus is not on getting played out by DJs but it is an enjoyment of listening to what feels interesting. Getting the fuzzy feeling, that’s what I’m after!

What does classical music mean to you?

I wouldn’t say that ‘classical’ music means a great deal to me, as I tend towards the stuff that the more modern composers did, I would go with my mum to see Steve Reich concerts; we’d go to see that stuff together. I don’t actively listen to the classic stuff, but because opera was always on at full blast in the house I got to hear a lot of it. It gave me an interesting perspective on what music is and what it can do. It has stuck with me the whole way through.

The categorisation of what is classical music has always puzzled me. The early works of Stockhausen are classical but today sound like something like that could be released on Torch Records! Looking back, it’s pretty wild what was going on in the 1950s and 1960s compared to what people do today.

Is Steve Reich a big influence on your work?

Absolutely. One of the biggest goose bumps I have ever had was going to see the Music for 18 Musicians live for the first time:

You start to see that live, and you say “Holy shit, it’s real!” It flared up a real love of the music in me. No-one bothered to notice that on my last album The Predicting Machine there is a strong nod to Reich on the fourth track, Winter Skies:

Reich was so revolutionary in the way he showed people could have ideas of just using tape loops. He was a massive influence on digital music today with the loops and the phase experiments – he laid the fundamentals to what people are still doing now. I would love to see Music for 18 Musicians performed on synths, I think that would be really successful.

What would you say classical music – as you listen to it – and techno have in common?

I think a lot of stuff! I really enjoy making those connections. I think classical music – and the music of Reich – refers to looped and non-looped music that is beatless. The question for techno is ‘Can you do that with a beat?’ For me though the fundamentals of techno and drone are laid down without a beat. Terry Riley and Steve Reich discovered that. It is an interesting connection there, but I find a lot of people won’t give it a chance. It’s like eating a vegetable. There are times when I won’t explore because I just don’t know.

What do you know and like at the moment?

I am a big fan of Terry Riley, because he is one of those great composers who cross into other areas. In his album A Rainbow in Curved Air he used music in a way that would give Autechre a run for their money:

I also think early Art of Noise records are really interesting, you have people trying stuff out – because why not? I remember when I was listening to some of this stuff at home, and being nearly asleep but being scared silly at the same time! We had some really interesting radio in the mid-1980s, and I was absorbing some crazy stuff.

I remember one time when one of my friends came round who was writing some particularly experimental stuff. He was playing that new stuff for me, which was a real risk for him playing it at full blast. Mum came in and said, “What are you playing, it’s really interesting – it sounds like…” and then she named three different composers. It wasn’t the standard request to turn it down at all!

Would you like to try writing more classically based music?

I have done some more experimental things on labels like Plug Research, but yes – I do have an idea to do something that is modern classical. We’ll see how that develops!

John Tejada’s new album Signs Under Test is out now on Kompakt – and you can listen to it on the label’s website here. For more about the artist himself, visit his Facebook page